All join hands for the merry Ministerial re-jig dance

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 12:05 27/10/2013

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OPINION: Ministerial resignations just aren't what they used to be.

This year has seen two ministers - Peter Dunne and John Banks - stand down in ignominy. Last year Nick Smith was bumped from his ACC portfolio.

The pattern? The "resignations" were a spell on the naughty step, to kill off the story and allow the heat to die down.

Prime Minister John Key is blatant that these enforced departures mean precisely nothing. Smith was shown the door for using ministerial stationery to advocate for a friend's ACC claim. From the get-go, Key was indicating he was rehabilitable. Nine months later he was back, as housing and conservation minister.

Banks was left no option but to quit, with a looming criminal trial over "anonymous" donations to his 2010 campaign to be Auckland's mayor. Key gave his portfolios (small business and regulatory reform) to his most senior ministers, and said Banks is welcome back if cleared.

This week he indicated Dunne - accused of leaking to the media - could be brought back from the political wilderness. Nothing, I'm sure, to do with the stalled Resource Management Act legislation, for which National needs a compromise from either Dunne or the Maori party.

Gone are the days when disgraced ministers were swept out the door and - after a suitable passing of time - neatly into a highly paid job on a quango or board.

These days they just while away sitting days in obscurity until party media managers deem it is politically safe to return. This must be a little galling for all those ambitious back- benchers, eager to get off the first rung of the greasy ladder, not to mention a $260,000 ministerial salary and a whirl in a Crown car. And especially galling for those who have worked hard to keep their noses clean.

Government sources are indicating there will be no pre-Christmas reshuffle, but a small rejig is likely early next year, particularly as Key got kudos for ruthlessly rooting out Phil Heatley and Kate Wilkinson in January. Signals are that commerce minister Craig Foss is on shaky ground.

Reshuffles are often accompanied by deflated expectations and restlessness. The resentment is ripe for manipulation by any senior players who have an eye on the top job.

There is plenty of speculation that Justice Minister Judith Collins is doing just that - winning over plenty of the 2008 intake, and many of the MPs who entered Parliament in 2011. It's a canny, long-term strategy that would place her as the front runner to succeed Key.

With an election approaching, all hopes are not dashed. Like vultures, enthusiastic young MPs are circling over the veterans, speculating about an exodus next year.

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The futures of Murray McCully, Maurice Williamson and Foss are openly being picked over in political circles. There is already considerable churn - MPs Chris Tremain, Paul Hutchison, Chris Auchinvole and Cam Calder have recently announced their departures. More are expected ahead of boundary changes, with many picking up hints about rejuvenation from the party leadership.

- Sunday Star Times

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